[MeToo Movement] | Why NY Court of Appeals decided to reverse Harvey Weinstein’s conviction for multiple sexual crimes?

Harvey Weinstein MeToo

New York Court of Appeals: In a pivotal moment concerning MeToo movement, the Court of Appeals considering Harvey Weinstein’s appeal, concluded that the Trial Court had erroneously admitted testimony of uncharged, alleged prior sexual acts against persons other than the complainants of the underlying crimes. It was stated that the Trial Court compounded that error when it ruled that Weinstein could be cross examined about those uncharged allegations, as well as numerous allegations of misconduct that portrayed him in a highly prejudicial light. “The synergistic effect of these errors was not harmless. The only evidence against defendant was the complainants’ testimony, and the result of the Court’s rulings, on the one hand, was to bolster their credibility and diminish defendant’s character before the jury. On the other hand, the threat of a cross-examination highlighting these untested allegations undermined defendant’s right to testify”.

Taking note of the “egregious errors” in trial, the Court with a ratio of 4:3 reversed the Appellate Division’s decision affirming the Trial Court’s ruling and ordered a new trial.

Background and Legal Trajectory: In 2017, prominent American newspapers reported stories of several women who accused Harvey Weinstein (defendant) of sexual abuse, harassment, secret settlements and using his influence as a Hollywood power broker to take advantage of young women. These revelations eventually kickstarted the ‘#MeToo Movement’ as many more Hollywood actresses came forward to share their stories of being sexually abused by the Hollywood mogul1.

The trial eventually began in 2020. The prosecution had contended that Weinstein abused his power to take advantage of aspiring female actors to coerce them into unwanted sexual encounters. According to the prosecution, the quid pro quo of assisting them with their careers in exchange for sexual favours on demand was both common behaviour and a well-known secret throughout the film industry. When his victims resisted his sexual demands, the prosecution argued, defendant used force. Furthermore, the prosecution stated that the complainants never reported the attacks due to trauma from their experiences and fear of retaliation and continued personal and professional relationships with him for years afterwards.

Before trial, the Trial Court granted prosecution’s application to admit certain testimony of uncharged crimes and miscellaneous bad acts as an exception to the Molineux rule, prohibiting such evidence, to establish defendant’s intent and his understanding of the complainants’ lack of consent. Furthermore, despite the defendant’s objection, the Trial Court also granted the prosecution’s application to cross-examine defendant on a broad range of uncharged bad acts, in the event he testifies.

The jury convicted him for various sexual crimes against three named complainants and sentenced Weinstein to consecutive terms on each count, an aggregate 23 years in prison, followed by five years post-release supervision.

The Appellate Division affirmed the afore-stated sentence and conviction concluding that Trial Court’s properly admitted Molineux testimonies to show that defendant’s sole interest in the complainants was sexual and their consent was irrelevant to him.

Coming before the NY Court of Appeals, the counsels representing Harvey Weinstein claimed that he was judged on irrelevant, prejudicial, and untested allegations of prior bad acts and not on the conduct for which he was indicted.

Court’s Assessment (Majority Opinion): The majority opinion was delivered by Rivera, J., which was concurred by Chief Judge Wilson, CJ., and Barros and Clark, JJ.

The Court found merit defendant’s grievance vis-à-vis Trial Court admitting uncharged crimes detailing sexual assaults he allegedly committed. The majority rejected the prosecution’s theory that the impugned testimony showed defendant’s state of mind to use forcible compulsion against complainants and his understanding of their lack of consent. The majority opined that if such an analysis is adopted, then it would eviscerate the time-tested rule against propensity evidence, which serves as a judicial buffer against a guilty verdict based in criminal cases.

The majority observed that Molineux rule states that general rule of evidence applicable to criminal trials is that the State cannot prove against a defendant any crime not alleged in the indictment. It was further observed that the purpose of the rule is that evidence of a defendant’s uncharged crimes or prior misconduct is not admissible if it cannot logically be connected to some specific material issue in the case and tends only to demonstrate the defendant’s propensity to commit the crime charged. The rule (Molineux) is the product of that same humane and enlightened public spirit which, speaking through our common law, has decreed that every person charged with the commission of a crime shall be protected by the presumption of innocence until they have been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”.

It was noted that Molineux evidence must “logically be connected to some specific material issue in the case” and be “directly relevant” to it; and the prosecution has the burden of showing that “direct relevance”.

Perusing the Trial Court proceedings, the Court of Appeals pointed out that as a matter of law, the Trial Court erroneously held that the prosecution showed that the Molineux Witnesses’ testimonies were necessary for a non-propensity purpose. It was pointed out that the complainants’ respective testimonies were not “equivocal” on the issue of consent. “There is no equivocality regarding consent when a person says “no” to a sexual encounter, tries to leave, and attempts to physically resist their attacker before succumbing to the attacker’s brute physical force. No reasonable person would understand such behaviour as having communicated anything other than their rejection of sexual activity”.

It was pointed out that during the trial the proposed basis for admitting the Molineux Witnesses’ testimonies was a candid acknowledgement that the true purpose of the evidence was to bolster complainants’ credibility by showing that others behaved similarly towards defendant even after he made unwanted sexual demands.

The majority also pointed out that there were significant differences between complainants and the Molineux Witnesses. All three complainants had long-term relationships with Weinstein, whereas the Molineux Witnesses each interacted with him for brief periods. It was also pointed out that complainants testified that defendant used force and, thus, his intent to commit the crime would have been established if the jury believed their accounts and concluded that force was used. However, the Molineux Witnesses’ prior experiences with defendant had no bearing on whether defendant used force against complainants.

The majority firmly iterated that “In reaching this legal conclusion, we take no step backwards from recent advances in our understanding of how sex crimes are perpetrated and why victims sometimes respond in seemingly counterintuitive ways”.

The majority concluded that the testimony from the Molineux Witnesses was unnecessary to establish defendant’s intent and served only to establish defendant’s propensity to commit the crimes charged. “Neither the prosecution nor the trial court identified some issue, other than mere criminal propensity, to which the evidence is relevant and therefore its admission during the prosecution’s case-in-chief was error”.

Furthermore, the majority criticised Trial Court’s decision to allow the prosecution to cross-examine defendant about allegations of charged and uncharged bad acts and termed it to be “breathtakingly inclusive of behaviour that was loathsome but not the type of conduct that would assist the jury in measuring his credibility on the stand”.

The majority stated that these errors, deprived the defendant of his constitutional right to a fair trial. “The Trial Court’s rulings ran afoul of these time-honored rules of evidence”.

Dissenting Opinion: Singas, J dissented with the majority decision along with Garcia and Cannataro, JJ.

In a scathing dissent, Signas. J., stated that the majority continued a disturbing trend of overturning juries’ guilty verdicts in cases involving sexual violence by whitewashing the facts to conform to a he-said/she-said narrative; by ignoring evidence of defendant’s manipulation and premeditation, which clouded issues of intent, and by failing to recognize that the jury was entitled to consider defendant’s previous assaults. “Fundamental misunderstandings of sexual violence perpetrated by men known to, and with significant power over, the women they victimize are on full display in the majority’s opinion”.

The Judges stated that while the majority’s holding may, at first glance, appear to endorse a utopic vision of sexual assault prosecution in which a victim’s word is paramount, the reality is far bleaker. “Critically missing from the majority’s analysis is any awareness that sexual assault cases are not monolithic and that the issue of consent has historically been a complicated one, subject to vigorous debate, study, and ever-evolving legal standards”.

It was noted that since consent was at the heart of the instant case, the People/ Prosecution necessarily had to demonstrate a lack of it. Prosecution may prove “that the sexual act was committed without consent of the victim” through evidence of forcible compulsion. Sexual assault cases necessarily require a jury to understand a defendant’s awareness of a victim’s lack of consent. Proof of this intent falls within the core class of evidence that Molineux took great care to distinguish from evidence simply demonstrating a defendant’s criminal propensity.

It was noted that the Molineux witnesses’ negative reactions to defendant’s sexual advances elucidated for the jury that defendant was fully aware that he could not assume consent simply because women crossed the threshold to his apartment or hotel room. Their testimony explained the idiosyncrasies of the entertainment industry that allow assaults to be perpetrated by influential and powerful men against young and relatively powerless aspiring actresses, such that the jury could better assess how defendant would have perceived the victims’ actions.

The dissenting Judges warned that “The majority appears oblivious to, or unconcerned with, the distressing implications of its holding. Men who serially sexually exploit their power over women—especially the most vulnerable groups in society—will reap the benefit of today’s decision”.

Cannataro, J., further pointed out that much like the majority’s grave error with respect to the Molineux testimony, the majority failed to understand the importance of this particular form of credibility evidence in a case where defendant seeks to convince the jury that he had consent and that his accusers are simply lying.

[The People v. Harvey Weinstein, No. 24, decided on 25-04-2024]

1. Harvey Weinstein arrives to court for start of trial and jury selection | CNN

Must Watch

maintenance to second wife

bail in false pretext of marriage

right to procreate of convict

Criminology, Penology and Victimology book release

Join the discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.